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Ride the corporate culture coaster up rather than down

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Culture change is difficult. It’s like replacing a track while the roller coaster speeds toward you.

Old style corporate cultures are often top down driven, with leaders dictating to managers, managers dictating to supervisors, and supervisors dictating to employees. That command and control structure, based loosely on the military model used by the US during World War II, worked for many years. It does not, unfortunately, work in a need-it-now customer-in-charge climate.

Walt Disney relied on impressive former military men to build Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Admiral Joe Fowler served as construction boss for the Disneyland project and General Manager of Disneyland for its first ten years. General Joe Potter played a key role in the construction of Walt Disney World. When the parks opened it was natural to rely on like military-trained minds to run the operation.

Walt himself was dictatorial, but fair. He knew what he wanted and pushed people hard to get it, often beyond the limits of what they themselves thought they could accomplish. His people would do as he directed because of his unique ability to inspire them with his vision. In the book, Remembering Walt, by Amy Boothe Green and Howard E. Green, artist Peter Ellenshaw is quoted as explaining, “He’d fill you with fire. I always tried to understand how he made me feel so good. It was magical really. … He’d talk about the project rather than how good or bad you were doing. He inspired you to create what he wanted. “

Dictatorships work as long as you have an inspiring leader: a George S. Patton; a Sam Walton; a Steve Jobs. But dictorial enterprises cease to work when the inspirational leader is no longer available.

Walt Disney passed away in 1966. Fortunately for the Disney organization, a whole generation of future Disney cast members (what Disney calls its employees) grew up watching Walt on TV. Leadership control was easy.

By the 1990s, Walt’s presence had receded from memory. New cast members had not grown up watching him on TV and no longer new exactly what Walt would have wanted. Additionally, competition in the theme park marketplace had increased. Finally, guests (what Disney calls its customers) became more discerning.

A new leader stepped into the void at Walt Disney World. Judson Greene, Vice President of Walt Disney Attractions, rolled out a culture change initiative he called Performance Excellence. Among other things, it redefined the relationship between a leader and his Cast Members.

Gone were the days of dictatorial demands. In its place came an initiative called the Continuous Improvement Process. This process gave cast members the freedom to identify and correct service issues and asked managers to shift from commanding and controlling to guiding and assisting.

A simple example will suffice. Walt Disney World had a policy of not allowing guests to bring food into attraction lines. This Examiner, during his Disney career, personally witnessed repeated repercussions of that policy. The Land Boat Ride, in the Land Pavilion at Epcot was situated right next door to the ice cream stand. A member of a guest party, usually the father, would leave the queue to purchase ice cream for his family. He would then approach the queue and we cast members would not allow him to enter. He would then, in frustration and disgust, throw the ice cream into the trashcan, in essence throwing away $20.00 he had just spent. That was the policy and no cast member was allowed to violate it.

With the roll out of the Continuous Improvement Process, the level of disservice in this policy became evident. Cast members spoke up. Leaders noticed, and the policy was changed. Guests can now bring their ice cream into queues in all four Walt Disney World theme parks.

This simple guest-satisfying fix was amplified throughout the whole property as front line cast members noticed, shared, and then helped fix service issues. None of these fixes could have happened, however, without a change in cultural mind set from, “I’m the boss and I know best,” to a mind set of, “How can I help you do your job and what are the gusts asking for?”

Think about your business. Who knows the most about your customers? Is it the suit in the office or the host on the front lines? And, do you have the culture in place to encourage fixes on that front line? If not, it might be time for a culture change before that rollercoaster ride turns into a downward spiral.

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